Level the playing field

Updated: 2013-07-08 07:15

By Philip. J. Cunningham (China Daily)

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Level the playing field

US-China relations are entering a new era, the outlines of which are still somewhat blurred by the ever-expanding ringlets and ripples set off by the shock of former National Security Agency operative Edward Snowden's blockbuster revelations of intrusive NSA spying. US President Barack Obama has shown a cavalier disregard for the privacy and pride of ordinary people in America and around the world, while pretending nothing's wrong and it's business as usual.

At the time of writing, America's most famous "hacker" is still holed up in Moscow airport, trying to figure out where to go next. He could have gone to China, by his own reckoning would be a path to luxury and comfort, "petting the Phoenix", as he put it. But he left Hong Kong in a hurry and rushed to Russia.

Now he's saying he doesn't want to stay in Russia either, which seems to support the notion that he really is a freelancer at heart, hoping to steer clear of big power politics, though he has certainly stirred up enough East-West intrigue to bring back memories of the Cold War and US bullying. Bolivian President Evo Morales was humiliated by the moves of Washington's European allies to halt and inspect his flight on the suspicion that Snowden was on board. The result? Two countries in Latin America have made offers of asylum.

The Cold War was not a good thing but the division of the world into different camps had its advantages when it came to making clear expressions of sovereignty. For a couple of decades, China did what it pleased without having to answer to the US. It could offer refuge to American radicals and victims of US injustice without giving a second thought to Washington's reaction.

Snowden, despite an expressed interest in Asian culture and the study of elementary Mandarin, would find himself a total outsider in China. Even in the unlikely event that Snowden might have found sanctuary in China, Sino-US relations would have regained balance quickly because the two countries are intricately interlinked economically, and there are built-in mechanisms such as the upcoming Strategic and Economic Dialogue and track-two meetings that keep the conversation going.

I remember being in China during the uneasy calm after the shocking Sept 11, 2011, attacks, a rare moment in modern history where the world's mightiest military power was unexpectedly the victim, and most of the civilized world rallied to its defense. At a briefing given by the US embassy in Beijing, a US State Department spokesman asked for China's understanding of America's intent to attack outposts of radical Islam in Afghanistan and elsewhere. When the question of Islamist violence in Xinjiang was raised, the spokesman quickly changed his tune, saying: "No, that's different. That's a human rights problem."

This is a classic example of "America can do no wrong, China can do no right" that has long infected US diplomacy and the media and even academia. To point out this obviously false narrative, as I did on a China politics list named Chinapol a few years ago, is tantamount to declaring the US emperor had no clothes. The University of California, Los Angeles academic who ran Chinapol, despite dedicating his life to researching China, had also worked for former US president George H.W. Bush and had access to NSA secrets. So he discouraged criticism of the US and banned Chinese scholars in China from joining the online community "for security reasons".

US politicians will continue to make pretty pronouncements about "human rights" and "free speech" it's in their political DNA to see the world in red, white and blue but it's going to ring hollow and sound hypocritical since the US, in its cyber-security overdrive, is increasingly guilty of violating the very values it preaches most loudly.

Getting back to the business of business does not mean business as usual. The US must stop once and for all acting like the "king of the world". US diplomats will stutter and mutter vague platitudes about how "all countries spy" and then change the topic. But they should drop the hypocritical lecturing and hectoring about cyber security, as if it were a one-way street with the US as the sole victim.

The author is a visiting research fellow at Cornell University, New York.

(China Daily USA 07/08/2013 page12)